AUTHOR’S NOTE: From YGO CoP 1 I wanted to tackle serious social issues such as racial and sexual inequality. I know how contentious these topics are but I swore to touch on all the issues I care about in my work.
Maya leaned on the grand piano in the practice room, her hand on her mouth in thought as she watched Clarence struggle to play. The poor boy was even more gauche with his composition than with his playing. Music is often said to be a language and while he could write sentences he didn’t know how to put them together in a meaningful paragraph. He would start an idea and just break it off without any justification. He was trying so hard to show his skill though, whizzing through scales and arpeggios but tripping every once in a while.
She put her private judgments aside. Clarence looked up to her. His eyes shone with an eager, naïve, and expectant light. “Well, how did I do?”
He was going to be disappointed. Maya was too irritated and worried to be tactful. Her patience was worn out by months of problems, but she still tried to be didactic in her response. “What did it say?”
Clarence blinked. “What?” He asked blankly. It took him a while to figure it out. “I don’t know… Was I supposed to say something? It sounded good, right?”
Maya shook her head and took his seat in front of the piano. Did he not learn anything? “You’re playing is fine. However, the technical skills in your composition are meaningless because it doesn’t say anything. You need to have an idea and real emotion behind it, but even that is not enough. You need to control the language of the music to sustain an idea and direct it somewhere.”
She would let her own folly instruct him. She played the last movement of a sonata she wrote during her teens. It was so virtuosic and dynamic it easily outstripped everything Clarence wrote, only magnified by Maya’s fiery but poised playing. But nothing. A few lights flashed. A few times a window opened into a higher realm but they quickly shut. “Where did I go with my idea? What did I say?”
Clarence remained silent, so she then played the final movement of the Waldstein sonata at a leisurely pace. She showed how Beethoven presented a unique idea, a dawning sunlight and the feelings of hope that came with it. She emphasized the few contrasting ideas that followed, but maintained how Beethoven sustained the main idea. Then, at the Presto part at the end… She let go! She bottled all the energy before, coiling it into a tight wire, and let it spring in a soaring and magnificent finish. “Where did Beethoven go with his idea? What did he say?”
Clarence’s face gradually darkened the whole time. He tried to throw music from the stand on the floor but he restrained himself. “I don’t see the point!!! Why are you forcing me to write stupid Classical music in the first place! No one writes dead white man’s music anymore!” He changed from anger to resignation. “It’s impossible. I’m never going to make it in the music industry. You know what it’s like. Black people don’t get hired or promoted as much. And the only way we can become mainstream is if we play into a racist gansta’ stereotype, a ‘lifestyle’ made by white people for white people.”
Maya didn’t apologize but the look in her eyes said everything. “I was too harsh. Let’s sit down on the floor.” So they did, leaning against the wall. “I struggle the same way in dueling. Couldn’t get a sponsor for my first two years as a pro. When I finally did I wasn’t paid or covered as much as white duelists even though I was much better than they were. I wasn’t forced but… I felt I needed to be, as you said, a gansta’ cliché. Since we’re in Chicago it’s only worse.”
She shook her head and told him everything. She remembered how hard it was for her to win her first Nationals against the former champion Matthew four years ago. But even the best duelists don’t always win the prize money. Hence why Maya composed, hence why she needed a manager. For each eight possible tournaments she could be in, seven of them were filled with white men. Her sponsor gave her less money than to other duelists and hence less resources to keep up with the metagame and live only by dueling. That entailed needing to support herself in other ways, which left even less time for dueling. Being an outspoken radical antimeta duelist didn’t exactly help either.
Clarence took some folded posters from his music binder and handed them to his teacher. “I watch your duels a lot. I think you’re an awesome duelist. Last year you donated to the King College Prep High School and lectured about how anti-intellectual America was and how badly it needed more educated people and public intellectuals. Then you completely devastated the Fox News sponsored duelists at the finals and exposed that to the whole world. That was great.”
Maya unfolded the posters. Many duelists modeled as a part of their career, both to make money and advertise themselves, and Maya was no exception. But she decided in each shoot exactly what she wanted to say. The first poster was her most popular. She was completely nude in a forest, wrapping a python around her like a scarf, her body vibrant, caught in the middle of motion. In the second poster she posed in her preferred dueling costume of a black tank top and a black skirt with red lacings holding a skull to advertise a special Halloween party. In the third, she was precariously balanced on a small boat on a river, wearing only old fishnets.
The other posters had a similar theme. Other duelists, especially the women, posed soullessly, their bodies “perfected” with a price tag put on them, like a Mercedes in a car magazine They were less lively than still life, their eyes pretty but blank. Their bodies didn’t show anything true about them, nothing of the blood that boiled in their veins or the fire that burned in their hearts.
The young woman who looked back at Maya in her posters was very different. Her wiry body vibrated with coiled energy. Her shoulder-length black hair of untamed, serpentine locks blended well with her brown face. Her features were broad and full, made livelier by the dark red lipstick and black eye shadow she often wore. Maya looked a long time into the woman’s piercing and narrow brown eyes. She wondered if the firebird who blazed in the posters really was her. She looked so powerful, like she could shake the earth and make its volcanoes erupt if she wanted to. Maya didn’t often feel that way, but was good at pretending otherwise.
Maya’s phone rang and she answered. Clarence didn’t know whom she was talking to, but he could see her eyes brighten and her hawkish features soften. She smiled and giggled like she was a teenage girl talking to her BFF about each other’s boyfriends. She hung up. “An old friend is meeting me at a party I don’t want to go to. My life is less terrible. Don’t forget to do your homework.”
Clarence was still curious. “By the way, why is your full name Marina Bozovic? Sounds Russian.”
“My dad is a Serbian immigrant. He met mom in the Bronx.” Maya replied.
The Duel Monsters National Championship Gala was another of those “work parties” Maya had to attend. And she hated them. All of them. Dueling was a lot like professional football and basketball, a ridiculous spectator sport owned by rich people to amuse themselves and cow the masses. It wasn’t the path of a warrior, as Yugi so often said. It was a business. It was reality TV. It was the news. Yugi was so innocent he never fell into the dark side of the dueling world. But other old school duelists, like Mai, did and knew first hand how vicious it was.
Corporate sponsors and duelist managers were everywhere, easily recognizable in their buttoned-up suits that cost a thousand dollars. In essence they were sleazy used car salesmen who pretended they were Bill Gates. The “great duelists” themselves were hardly any better. Most wore extravagant or gaudy costumes like Hollywood and music industry celebrities. Whenever Maya was bored in these events, which she almost always was, she would amuse herself by picking out the Kim Kardashians, the Kanye Wests, the Jessica Simpsons, the Tom Cruises…
Maya found Jolene, her friend since high school, and they embraced with open hearts, glad to see each other after so many years. Jolene was a small and spunky woman with dirty blond hair and sharp, green cat-like eyes that peeped through green horn-rimmed glasses. “I’m so glad you got back your National Champion title last year! I hope things are going better for you!”
Maya kissed her dear friend on the cheek. “Thank you so much for coming cher! Things are getting a little better!” And she meant it. But the problems still hounded her and wouldn’t even stop at her grave. One problem, a banker whose son was one of the duelist celebrities, just came around the corner. “Hide!” Maya cried frantically and they both dove behind a large fountain.
It was best if Jolene didn’t know the sordid story. To duel she needed to buy cards, so she needed to borrow money, and so she needed to keep up with the game when new cards came out, so she needed to borrow money. And the cycle went on, interest lumping together into a big hideous pile Maya never dared laid eyes on. The ugly truth was no amount of tournament winning could pay the debts off. To be a pro you needed the financial backing privilege gave you. No amount of hard work and tournament winning would help you.
The two women reintegrated themselves back into the crowd. One of the “hip “ corporate sponsors, distinguished only by his sunglasses and greasy beard, a sort of David de Rothschild, took the burden of delivering the announcements. And a burden it was, from his pathetic attempt at safe jokes to his self-congratulatory tone to the long role call of all the “brilliant innovators” who sponsored the party. It wasn’t necessary. Maya could tell who they all were by the corporate logos that infected every stadium she dueled in.
The announcements reached closure, and the room darkened. The gaudy duelists all danced to, as Clarence would guess it, gansta’ rap. The self-important corporate sponsors were more reserved. They knew not to make a fool of themselves. That was the duelists’ job. Tomorrow Maya would duel against Akira Ryu, the World Champion himself, in a spectator match to begin the Nationals. But only Akira was invited to the podium. Maya was only mentioned briefly.
As the party dragged on, Maya took Jolene on a tour of sorts around the dueling world, mocking the more pretentious duelists they passed. Maya’s sharp eye caught a woman of fair skin, pale hair, and deep blue eyes. The woman icily acknowledged Maya before gliding out of sight in a way she thought dignified. “Purity Sue over there is Maria Law, the British Champion. She thinks she’s an angel sent by God to tell everyone how to duel. She is completely oblivious of how annoying she is and should go die in a fire.”
They passed a man whose fashion was so retro he stuck out like a sore thumb, even among the crew of celebrity duelists.. “The wannabe seventies pedophile is Garret Gould, Canadian Champion. His dueling is as bad as his piano playing. He can’t take a hint from anyone and he has so much faith in tradition it makes Edmund Burke look smart. He thinks he’s a genius with Asperger’s but in reality he’s just an idiot with an inflated ego.”
They passed a tall, beefy man, slightly overweight. His face was gregarious and shady at the same time. “That’s Mathias Krueger. He’s so American he makes Bandit Keith and Ben Affleck look Canadian. Ironically he was born in Canada. He thinks he’s the biggest alpha male of all time but he’s actually a good duelist who believes in challenging himself to the limits. He’s pretty cool and eats everything in sight.”
He embraced a buxom, red-haired woman. “That’s Merida Morgana, Irish Champion. She has a really nice rack. I really want drink with her while we listen to Camelot and play Castelvania.”
At last Maya revealed to Jolene the star of the freak show. “Have a front row seat. This is Akira Ryu himself, Japanese and World Champion. The Japanese chose a fifteen-year-old bishi to be their champion because they can’t stand pubic hair. With each passing year the World Champions get younger and younger. Everyone I showed you has their spot because of their privileged background. Maria comes from a family of lawyers. Garret’s father owns a bra-manufacturing company (I’m not kidding). And Akira’s dad is a senior business advisor for KaibaCorp.”
Jolene needed a while to take it all in. Thinks really didn’t change. Or did they? Maya seemed to have lost her shyness from four years earlier. “It’s a bit shallow and mean how much you hate and judge all these people. For someone who fights for equality, you showed a lot of prejudice.”
“They deserve to be judged harshly. Whatever I say about them they say about me. Even worse, they go so far as to slander and try to ruin me in other ways. ‘High society’ has the values of Mean Girls, which they think is Twilight, which they compare to Macbeth. If you heard how many times show hosts told me I ‘talked white’ you’d know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Jolene got the point. “Is everyone your bitter enemy?”
Maya smiled dryly, sadly, in resignation. “Yes.”
“The dueling world really destroys the game. It was so much better when we would duel each other just for fun in detention. The teacher wouldn’t even show up.”
“I totally agree. But I have no choice. I’m in a cycle I can’t leave.”
Jolene rested her hand on Maya’s shoulder. “Hey, you always have a choice.”
The snotty boy Akira, who called himself World Champion, and Maria the angel showed up. Akira cocked his head and looked up at Maya quizzically. “So this is the American Champion you told me about, Maria.” He stroked his chin, puzzling out this strange antimeta duelist. “She never once used the three great decks, but she still manages to win.”
Maria escorted Akira away to whisper to his ear. “She just doesn’t get it.” She seemed oblivious Maya was still practically right in front of her. “She’s the most offensive person I’ve ever known, and the most stubborn. She’s so loud and gross. Just no! She ruins the game for everyone. She wrecked Lightsworns. Will she ruin Burning Abyss and Qliphort now?”
“Dignity and subtlety at its finest.” Maya commented.
Akira took a glass of champagne from a butler. It was really funny watching the fifteen-year-old act like a sleazy tycoon or Playboy publisher. It made Maya’s old rival, Matthew, look downright tolerable by comparison. “You’ll be an intriguing opponent.” Akira clearly found their match to be an amusement. “You really like to stick it to the man, lead the people, right? Let’s see how that turns out.” He bowed in feign politeness and took Maria away with him.
He was certainly amusing, Maya thought. The little man thought he was Caesar but he really was Ptolemy XIII. In a fair fight he would be kicked aside by the grown ups, which is what Maya planned to do if they actually were in a tournament together. The thought of crushing the little turd under her heel delighted her.
Maya and Jolene took some champagne together. Maya preferred red wine to be classy or Texas moonshine for a rougher, outdoorsy experience, but this had to do. The dueling world hardly changed since Maya became a pro. It even seemed to have gotten worse. She dug herself her own grave. Her strengths became curses that made most of the dueling world reject her. Four years ago she only had one Matthew. Now she had more than five.
Even her music was in a dead end like dueling. She was pushing classical boundaries and infusing different genres to create a unique style. She was a very competent jazz writer. But she had the same problems her student Clarence did. She wasn’t rich, wasn’t backed up by a manager, and the music industry didn’t want a black woman who was actually educated and talented. She was growing in power, energy, nuance, discipline… but nobody cared.
After a few drinks she felt vaguely relaxed and happy. Jolene looked like a grinning idiot, which was how Maya imagined she must have looked. She took more to drink, which she knew was a mistake. Going from tipsy to drunk meant falling from a swimming pool into a chasm. Anything to make the demons vanish! The demons came all the same. They sprang up from her bubbly champagne glass as if it was a hellish cauldron and danced around her in tune to the generic party rap music. Strangely enough, the demons didn’t bother her. Her vision was distorted, she felt vaguely dizzy, and everything sounded muffled like she was underwater. She was close enough to touch the demons but they seemed made of glitter and just out of her read.
Jolene and she laughed together about something that wasn’t funny and for no reason. They stumbled out of the rich gala party to find a local club where there would be better company. People like them who made the same mistakes they did. Their long night was better wasted there. As for her duel tomorrow, Maya wished she didn’t care.